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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

Title: The Second Empress

Author: Michelle Moran

ISBN: 0307953033

Publisher:  Crown
Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 320 pgs

Publication Date: August 14, 2012

How I Read It: Received from LibraryThing for review

Rating: 3.5 Crowns

Synopsis:  After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When Marie-Louise, the eighteen year old daughter of the King of Austria, is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon, leaving the man she loves and her home forever, or say no, and plunge her country into war.  Marie-Louise knows what she must do, and she travels to France, determined to be a good wife despite Napoleon’s reputation. But lavish parties greet her in Paris, and at the extravagant French court, she finds many rivals for her husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s first wife, Jos√©phine, and his sister Pauline, the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. 

Beloved by some and infamous to many, Pauline is fiercely loyal to her brother. She is also convinced that Napoleon is destined to become the modern Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, her greatest hope is to rule alongside him as his queen—a brother-sister marriage just as the ancient Egyptian royals practiced. Determined to see this dream come to pass, Pauline embarks on a campaign to undermine the new empress and convince Napoleon to divorce Marie-Louise.  As Pauline’s insightful Haitian servant, Paul, watches these two women clash, he is torn between his love for Pauline and his sympathy for Marie-Louise. But there are greater concerns than Pauline’s jealousy plaguing the court of France. While Napoleon becomes increasingly desperate for an heir, the empire’s peace looks increasingly unstable. When war once again sweeps the continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family in Austria, the second Empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life.

My Thoughts: Almost every historical fiction novel I've seen dealing with the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte has focused on his first wife Josephine.  Second Empress tells the story of his second wife Marie-Louise-the woman he set his soul mate Josephine aside for because he saw in Marie-Louise a greater chance of conceiving a much needed heir.  At just 18 years of age, Marie-Louise seems mature for her age, recognizing that she must go through with the marriage for the well being of her empire.  I'm not sure that given Napoleon's not so nice guy reputation that any normal eighteen year old would just accept that fate but she does and off to the French court she goes.  The narrative alternates between Marie-Louise, Napoleon's crazy sister Pauline, and her Haitian chamberlain Paul as each gives their view of what occurs in Napoleon's court from 1809 to 1815.

As with her previous novels I felt sucked right into life in the French court.  Michelle Moran really does tell a good story.  While I normally like alternating viewpoints in a novel, I wish this book had delved into each character's point of view a bit more.  Paul's view I kind of liked but could take it or leave it while poor young Marie-Louise having to navigate the political boundaries of her new homeland and put up with the brusque uncaring nature of her new husband and mad Pauline with her outlandish ideas of ruling alongside her brother and her deviant ways both made for compelling characters.  When the book ended I found myself wishing it was longer so more of their story could have been told.

As someone who has read more about the life of Marie-Louise's great Aunt the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, this was a fascinating look at a period in French history I knew next to nothing about.  I enjoyed watching Marie-Louise blossom from a young woman resigned to her fate to a stronger willed one determined to do what she must to protect what is most precious to her.  Although I was really wishing for more character development and a longer story in general, this was an entertaining fast paced read.  If you liked Moran's previous novels you are probably going to like this one too.

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